Open Studio with Jared Bowen


A Christmas Story, Rebecca Eaton and more ...

There's a new look at the seminal holiday favorite, A Christmas Story, beginning this week at the Wang Theatre; and Jared sits down for a conversation with PBS Masterpiece Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton to talk about her new book “Making Masterpiece.”

AIRED: November 22, 2013 | 0:26:46

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome to Open Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen.

Coming up on Open Studio, Ralphie and his

Red Ryder BB gun hit the stage as A Christmas Story

gets a musical makeover.

>> Television brought it around.

And when people realized that it's such a universal theme

in A Christmas Story... it's really a bo

looking for his father's attention.

>> BOWEN: Then, Making Masterpiece.

It's Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton's

new behind-the-scenes memoir about the PBS classic.

>> I know what our niche is, I know what our audience is,

and not to drop a stitch in terms of the qualit

and the amount that we can offer.

>> BOWEN: Plus, we'll meet one of the founding fathers

of comic books.

>> I always wanted to draw and tell a story in pictures.

>> BOWEN: And a monster work habit.

>> I think a monster is whatever your imagination

thinks a monster is.

>> BOWEN: It's all now on Open Studio.

First up, one of our most beloved holiday film traditions

now has a big, sensational kickline.

A Christmas Story, the contemporary classic tale

of a boy who just wants a Red Ryder BB gun from Santa,

is now a musical.

Guiding us through the move from screen to stage

is veteran actor Dan Lauria.

A Christmas Story, the perennial festive film

that finds itself in just about every living room at some point

during the holiday season, is now all the rage on stage.

>> ♪ You've got to give up 'cause teacher knows best... ♪

>> When you mess with a classic, you're in trouble.

A lot of people come into the show

with that chip on their shoulder going, "What did you do

to my favorite movie?"

And they walk out really surprised how loyal

we are to the script of the movie.

And in the movie whenever the young bo

Ralphie Parker has a fantasy, those are production numbers.

>> BOWEN: Actor Dan Lauria, well known for playing

the father on the hit television series The Wonder Years,

plays the narrator, recounting the story of a 1940s

Indiana family in which young son Ralphie

has just one wish for Christmas-- a Red Ryder BB gun.

It's a story with which Lauria himself can absolutely relate.

>> Well, you know, I grew up in an era where, you know,

we got one present for Christmas.

You always got your socks and your pants and your underwear,

but then you got one present.

And you usually you knew what it was, because your father

came up, "What do you want for Christmas?"

"I could use a new glove, Dad."

"Okay, I'll see what I can do."

And then you got a glove, you know?

Well, this is really a boy, he doesn't care about

all the other stuff.

He really wants this one gift.

The greatest Christmas gift I ever received.

Are you kidding?

My old man, my dad, gave it to me.

>> BOWEN: A Christmas Story is a most unlikely one.

Like It's A Wonderful Life

before it, the film floundered at the box office,

finding belated success only later on.

>> Television brought it around.

And when people realized that it's such a universal theme

in A Christmas Story ... it's really a boy looking

for his father's attention.

That's what it's really about.

And that just carries through.

>> BOWEN: The show has remained a family affair,

with Peter Billingsley, who played the original

Ralphie Parker in the movie, serving as a producer--

the first time he's signed on to any project related to the film.

It was also he who lured Lauria, who cites the late actors

Charles Durning and Jack Klugman as mentors who inspired his love

of theater.

>> Charlie, after every performance, he would come up

and put his arm around me and he'd go, "Another 20 years,

you'll be an actor."

And then I did a play with Jack called The Value of Names.

And Jack and I had one of those nights.

And Jack walks off the stage, he goes, "You've got to call up,

boys-- we've got to have dinner and find out what the hell

that we did right tonight," you know?

And we had this dinner.

It was great stories.

And Charlie, very emotionally, you know, he put his arm

around me, he said, "All right, another ten years,

you'll be an actor."

And I laughed, I said, "Yeah."

I said what I always said-- "Okay, Charlie, I'll keep


And Jack, very seriously, he leaned into the great

Charles Durning and said, "Charlie, are you an actor yet?"

And Charlie Durning said, "Jack, I'm gettin' damn close."

So that's the attitude.

>> BOWEN: It's those stories that make the stor

behind this one all the more heartwarming.

For about 28 years, there's been but one Mistress of Masterpiece,

the famed PBS show.

Rebecca Eaton has been at the helm for most

of the program's storied run, working with a pre-Potter

Daniel Radcliffe, carousing with Alistair Cook,

and of course selecting the masterpieces that have

defined television history.

She details all of it in her new book, Making Masterpiece.

Rebecca Eaton, the book is Making Masterpiece.

So in the preface, Kenneth Branagh, who is

in the Masterpiece family, many many series, and whom you know

quite well, says that you're an Anglophile, but in essence,

you're not sycophantic about it, which I think is a great

description, because you love everything British, but you have

to be discriminating to be the head of Masterpiece.

>> Yeah.

He is the sweetest man in the world.

"My friend Kenneth Branagh," who could say that?

Anyway, I think what he means is, you know, I have to make

decisions, and choose... protect the American audience

from the bad British dramas, and not just be overwhelmed

because they speak in that accent.

But no, I was thrilled that he wanted to write the preface.

>> BOWEN: First of all, I'm sure many audiences

fail to believe that there is even bad British drama.

But you're the woman who for 28 years now has been

sifting through it.

>> Masterpiece cherry-picks.

It is the best of British drama.

And for years we were the only game in town

for British drama.

But now, with a couple of hit shows like Downton Abbey

and Sherlock, the Brits are in fashion in this country.

And I think you'll be seeing a lot more British drama.

>> BOWEN: You're very honest in the book about

near misses you've had.

You almost didn't take Sherlock, you almost didn't take

Prime Suspect.

>> And complete misses, like Pride and Prejudice,

which ended up on A&E.

So is there a science to it?


I mean, it's very subjective.

You can do focus groups, you can do evaluations.

That's what the networks do.

But we don't have the money to do it.

So it is very subjective.

It's sort of an educated guess.

I've been doing this now for 25 years, and have watched

the ratings, and know when I thought something

the audience would love, it didn't, something maybe

I didn't love so much, but the audience did.

So I've, you know, kind of internalized all that,

and I... it's partly instinct, partly an education.

And I also watch these shows or read these scripts

with a couple of other people.

I ask somebody to have a look at a script or I get the staff

in to watch a potential show.

Although most of these things now are not made.

They come to us as ideas.

>> BOWEN: Which must be terribly scary, to be

at the beginning process.

>> The whole thing is scary.

Yes, it was in the early days.

Masterpiece was born in 1971.

And in the early days there were shelves and shelves

of British dramas in London, and my predecessor could go

to London and screen them, and buy them and put them

on the air.

And now maybe 75% of what we do are co-productions,

which means they aren't made.

They're basically an idea, a book, a script.

So you take a lot of chances, from will it translate

from this idea, if it's on the page will it be

on the stage, you know, will it be a fun show?

>> BOWEN: What in your life... and you talk about...

this is sort of a dual-faced memoir.

It's of your life, and it's of Masterpiece,

and you talk about your father, who taught Shakespeare,

your mother, who was an actress, a quite renowned actress.

So was that instrumental in your life in giving you

the capability now to be able to look at... I guess is it

in the genes to be able to look at these scripts and know

this is a story that's compelling?

>> I don't know if it's in the genes.

I mean, she was an actress.

My mother was an actress.

She was on stage.

She was in the original production

of The Children's Hour, Lillian Hellman's

The Children's Hour in New York in the '30s,

and then she did some movies in the '40s.

So I think she did have a gift.

My father was an academic and a reader.

So I would say... and my daughter is interested

in theater.

So I think more than is it in the genes,

I think it was certainly was in the house.

>> BOWEN: And then you recreated it.

I love that passage in your book, where you were

always a producer.

You were recreating your living room

to be a Hollywood set.

>> I was a little bookworm in Southern California

pretending to be Audrey Hepburn from Love in the Afternoon.

I remember seeing it, and then coming home

and trying to adjust the lighting so it would look

like a Paris hotel suite, and trying to find things

in our refrigerator that looked like what they might

have eaten.

So I did have a very rich fantasy life.

>> BOWEN: So in talking about some of the stars

who've come up, we've mentioned Kenneth Branagh,

and these are people who were very young at times

when you've worked with them.

You have this very adorable letter from a very young

Daniel Radcliffe who was in David Copperfield

prior to Harry Potter.

What about those individuals?

Is there anybody who you saw in those moments and thought,

"This is inevitable," that this person is going to be a

tremendous force?

>> That's interesting.

I hadn't really thought about it.

Of course, Helen Mirren.

We'd been watching Helen Mirren in various other

television productions before she was Jane Tennyson

in Prime Suspect.

So I had a feeling about her.

Younger actors, yes, there have been... I'm thinking

of them now.

I'm remembering that we saw... Ralph Fiennes was in

the first Prime Suspect.

He had a very small part.

He was a suspect, not the prime suspect,

and he had a scene.

And we all thought, "Who's that guy?

That guy... that guy might go somewhere."

And he turned out to be Ralph Fiennes.

Because these British actors do a lot of legwork

before they hit the big time.

They do television, they do theater, they do radio.

And we've had the benefit of seeing them,

and our audiences had the benefit seeing them,

kind of in their salad days.

>> BOWEN: You also have wonderful stories

about the hosts that you've worked with-- Vincent Price,

Alistair Cooke.

I'm very curious about the booze-filled nights

that you spent with Alistair Cooke

in his hotel room, Rebecca Eaton.

>> Oh, my gosh.

I hardly remember them, there was so much scotch.

But he was... he was one of the best talkers

of the late 20th century.

He would stay at the Ritz here in Boston.

He would rearrange the furniture so it was the same wa

every time, he liked it.

And I would have my seat, and he would have his seat,

and the scotch would flow, and he would talk

about being a journalist, about being at Bobby Kennedy's

assassination, about touring America with his own camera

in the '30s, about becoming friends with Charlie Chaplin

and going sailing to Catalina Island with Charlie Chaplin.

I mean he was... he was history itself.

And then we would get down to business, of course.

He knew what he was doing.

You know, I would have had three drinks by then,

and then he would be reading me his scripts.

And he became a friend, a dear friend,

as did Russell Baker, and Diana Rigg and Vincent Price too.

>> BOWEN: And one thing that astounded me about

Alistair Cooke as somebody who's in the business,

that he never used the teleprompter.

>> No, no.

In this very studio... well, not exactly this studio.

The old WGBH studio.

He would... and the introductions used to be

about four minutes long.

Four minutes long at the beginning

of each episode, to recap the episode, do a little

social history.

And he would go into a little corner,

we would all be very quiet, and creep around, and he would

come out rather impatiently and say "All right, let's go,

"let's go."

And he would sit down in a chair just like this,

not in the red leather chair everyone thought he was in.

And he would go straight to camera,

no teleprompter, for four minutes without

making a mistake.

Then he would go out and have a cigarette,

come back in and go in his corner

and do the next episode, and the next episode.

And he would do maybe seven a day, come back

the next day, do more.

This was in the days of I Claudius

or Upstairs Downstairs that went on for weeks and weeks.

And I think it was his brain and his British education

where they teach a lot of memorization and poetry.

And he watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy every night

until the day he died, so, you know, he was, you know,

sharpening his synapses the whole time.

>> BOWEN: Before I ask the inevitable Downton question

I just want to ask you quickly, you're very honest in this book,

too, about the business side of things.

And I'm curious about Masterpiece's place today,

where it used to own this type of programming.

And frankly what PBS used to do alone in a lot of ways

between history and science is no more.

HBO and other entities, now Netflix and Amazon

have come along, offering a lot of what we onl

used to offer here at PBS.

So how does Masterpiece stay relevant today?

>> Well, that's a scary question.

And everybody's thinking about it.

How does television, broadcast television,

stay relevant?

I think that's the bigger question.

And there are so many people smarter than I thinking about


I have decided that my job is to continue to choose,

to produce, co-produce, the very best British drama--

I know what our niche is, I know what our audience is--

and not to drop a stitch in terms of the qualit

and the amount that we can offer.

>> BOWEN: And finally, what can you share with me

about season four of Downton Abbey?

>> Absolutely nothing.

>> BOWEN: And we know each other, and you still

won't tell me.

>> I won't tell you, and you don't want me to tell you.

>> Well I will tell you it's six months after

Matthew died-- I apologize about that.

Six months after Matthew's death, Lady Mar

is in mourning, of course, and the rest of the house

is very concerned about her, because it looks as if

she won't come back.

So it is... the first episode is a beautifully done stud

of a community in mourning who are helping each other

and raising them up, and raise her up they do.

And then things start to happen for her.

>> BOWEN: All right, Rebecca Eaton,

Making Masterpiece is your new book.

Thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thank you, Jared.

>> BOWEN: Well these days it seems superheroes

are everywhere, leaping off the page

and into big screen blockbusters.

But nearly three quarters of a century ago,

comic books were meant to thrill young audiences

in a simpler way.

Enter Allen Bellman, once a young man

who loved to doodle, and now a retiree in South Florida.

Here we reveal his secret identit

as the man who drew Captain America.

>> My name is Allen Bellman, and I worked for

Timely Marvel Comics in 1942.

I started doing backgrounds-- Captain America.

I always wanted to draw comics.

My father had a bakery.

Every chance I had, I'd draw on a paper bag.

And I'd open a book and there was a white space

in a hard covered book, I'd draw in there.

It's just something you have in you.

It was Columbus Day 1942.

And I says to my Dad, I says, "I'll go tomorrow,

it's a holiday."

He said, "No, you'll go today."

I said, "Dad," and we went back and forth,

back and forth, and he won.

And I thank my dear dad, because I don't know

where I'd be now if I didn't listen to him,

because I got that job in ten or 15 minutes.

They said, "You start Monday."

I went to the High School of Industrial Art.

And I went on and off at night at Pratt Institute.

But actually, it was on the job that I got my training

and the ability to improve, the opportunit

to keep improving my work.

And I always worked and strived to have a better job.

I was never really ever happy whatever I do, even now.

I always feel I could do better, more and more.

But when I do a drawing for a fan, I want it to be good.

I'm so happy to draw it the old way, because this is

what the fans want.

When I get a note or email saying, "Mr. Bellman,

"you've made me happy, with your work,

it's framed," this means more to me than anything else.

It's just a personal gratification that I get

that I can make someone happy with just my art.

They like my art.

Some stories I love to do more than other stories.

It's like an actor getting a script,

and they read the script, and they say, "Not for me."

and they give it to somebody else, it becomes

a big hit, you know?

But the fact is it's the same thing.

Certain stories just would motivate me more than

other scripts.

Doing a comic book, or doing any kind of comic strip,

it's doing a movie.

You have your long shot, your closeup, your bird's eye

view, worm's eye view.

You have to change each panel so you keep the interest

of the reader.

A lot is left to the imagination.

And the writer would describe, saying, "Have him drinking,"

or something to that effect, but you used

your own imagination.

Like I said, it's like doing a movie, and you have to

think as a movie with still pictures.

There was one book already written about

the comic book industry, but it came and went.

But I had spoken to many writers and said, "Why don't you write

a book about the comic book industry?"

Everyone had a story to tell.

You're living in the best country of the world.

The opportunities are here.

You cannot give up.

You cannot surrender with rejection, because you will

hit somewhere.

Learn how to draw.

Do not copy the comic book characters,

because you'll never learn to draw.

Learn how to draw anatomy-- a woman's anatomy,

a man's anatomy-- so when you put the costume on the man,

you will know where the muscles are, you'll know

where the hands are.

I always wanted to draw and tell a story with pictures,

and my dream came true at the tender age of 18.

>> BOWEN: He's certainly his own character.

And so is our next guy, actually.

When artist James DeRosso decided to shift his focus

from plates and bowls to small monsters, he scared up

a fair amount of attention for his self-taught work.

His life is the stuff of childhood dreams--

or nightmares.

>> Everyone has their own idea of what a monster is.

I think a monster is whatever your imagination

thinks a monster is.

I remember being a kid and not wanting to let a hand

or foot dangle too far off the bed, because I had

this fear that there was a monster that was going to

grab it.

I think with my monsters I kind of wanted to give kids

the permission to realize that a monster could be

the playful sort of curious monster, or the one

that's scared, and not the monster

that wants to eat your foot or your hand.

This monster thing I do has just been unlimited for me,

of where it can go and what I can do with it.

You know, when I first think of a monster, especially one

I've never made before, there is a lot of sketching involved.

I always have sketchbooks with me.

So I'll get an idea for a monster, especiall

when it's something I've never made before,

just to get it down, so I remember this new idea

that I thought of.

And a lot of times it's just a really, really rough idea.

This was for a salt and pepper shaker.

You know, I'll work out details, too, of, like, how I think

the horns are going to come into the body, or the expression

that I want.

Yeah, this guy here, holding his sign, that would be

a big tall monster.

And he'd hold a sign that says, "Don't poop on the lawn."

You know what else would a monster say, right?

A lot of times the lid of a handle of any vessel I make

is a found object.

So I have here my wall of parts.

Good old bathtub cold faucet handle.

This is a toilet flusher.

This is an old radiator opening and closing knob.

To me it's just dying to be the handle to the monster's

cookie jar lid.

How can you throw something that beautiful away?

As I started making and selling monsters,

I got approached by a mom who said "Would you come

to my son's birthday party and show the kids how to make

monsters at a party?"

And now that's this whole other world I do where I'm exposing

kids and adults to getting their monster out.

It's really easy.

Second graders do this.

So... so...

See how the legs come out at the base?

Gently massage your monster, okay?

So you have the underbite monster, we can put it

that way.

If you flip it over, you have the overbite monster.

>> So I'm hosting a monster party for my birthday.

>> BOWEN: Work the water back and forth.

She's drinking her water cup, and she's dipping her finger

in her wine.

You can just relax and be silly and have fun with this,

and believe me, you're going to get something that works,

because it's a monster.

I'm going to keep moving to eyeballs now.

>> You do need to listen to James when he tells you

how to do something.

But I think they all turned out great.

>> This subject matter to me is endless.

This year was now my second year being a part of

the country fair, going there as a vendor.

I quit my day job and went completely full time

just doing my clay and doing the monsters,

and doing more shows, and enjoying just being able

to say I'm now an artist.

Monster cookie jar.

I'm James DeRosso, and that's my art.

>> BOWEN: That is all for this edition of Open Studio.

Next week, what's the holidays without Scrooge?

We'll talk to the man who's been playing him for 20 years.

>> Oh, tell me that I may sponge awa

the writing on this stone!

That's David Coffee from the North Shore

Music Theatre's annual production of A Christmas Carol.

And for the first time the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

is opening up about its devastating theft.

A new show there considers absence.

>> In a way it would give even more dramatic

signification of the absence.

>> BOWEN: That and more next week on Open Studio.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thanks for joining us.

As always, you can visit us online at Studio.

And you can follow us on Twitter, @Open StudioWGBH.


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